Release Date: Sep 30, 2016
Record label: Ninja Tune
Genre(s): Electronic, R&B, Club/Dance, IDM, Left-Field Hip-Hop, Jungle/Drum'n'Bass, Alternative R&B
Let’s bow our heads for the phrase “going pop,” a now-archaic term meant to note an underground artist compromising themselves to make gobs of money and perch themselves on top of the charts. “Gobs of money” no longer applies to industry hopefuls, in a splintered post-monoculture there’s nobody to compromise to, and with postmodern retromaniacal flailing still a top priority, anything that might otherwise skew “trendy” still sounds like a future that’s dragging its ass on actually getting here. Travis Stewart’s had one of the more typical internet-era careers in that context: as Machinedrum, he spent nearly ten years being underrated for working in the margins of glitch-hop, then was pulled into the post-dubstep orbit to find a cult audience that felt bigger than it actually was.
Machinedrum, aka Travis Stewart, returns with his first record in three years under this moniker. After conquering the world with Sepalcure, and making the best Machinedrum record of all time with Vapor City, Travis takes his project in a bit of a confusing direction. Rather than towards the experimental outskirts of IDM, he takes a step towards Walmart EDM, and the record is worse for the choice.
On his third album for Ninja Tune, Machinedrum (Travis Stewart) makes a significant leap toward pop-minded production while sharpening his futuristic hybrid club sound. His previous three full-lengths, starting with his influential 2011 Planet Mu release Room(s) and continuing with both Vapor City albums for Ninja Tune, successfully fused spacious synth pads, jungle breakbeats, R&B and dancehall vocal samples, and the franticness of Chicago's juke/footwork scene. While all of those influences come into play on Human Energy, the beats aren't quite as heavy by volume, and the synths aren't nearly as vast and spacious.
In addition to releasing a sophomore record with Sepalcure earlier this year, Machinedrum (aka Travis Stewart) moved from New York to California and got engaged. He'd be the first to tell you that life moves have also resulted in musical moves, as Human Energy shifts away from the introspective haziness of his lengthy Vapor City series towards textures that are brighter, more accessible and uplifting. The endless arpeggio of "Lapis" kickstarts a record of the most pop-oriented material Stewart has produced in years, pushing both electronics and vocals to their glitchy breaking points.
A move from Berlin to LA, a new engagement, pastel imagery, "healing music"—if you hadn't been aware of these things before listening to Human Energy, the album would still seem like a positive turn from Travis Stewart. Sped up and decked out in neon, Human Energy is unfailingly happy. It's the work of an artist already known for fast music trying to go even faster.
Unless you are king bro, you’re likely to have mixed feelings about the “drop”, the release of tension that is so expected in every electronic-leaning banger but, more often than not, feels like a cliché. Lots of this decade’s best songs (think Usher’s ‘Climax’ or SOPHIE’s ‘Bipp’) have stood out because they showed restraint when they could have just taken the easy road, but come on! We’re all hedonists at heart! Sometimes we just want that “drop” to crush us like a goddamn locomotive! Anyone who is familiar with Machinedrum’s work, whether it be with Sepalcure or under his own name, wouldn’t expect him to be the provider of such cheap thrills. Nevertheless, Human Energy is oddly open about its agenda.
North Carolina-raised electronic producer Machinedrum, aka Travis Stewart, has had an eclectic career so far, but you wouldn’t describe much of his back catalogue as cheerful. His solo albums and collaborative projects have often focussed on dark textures and gloomy moods, but on Human Energy he’s done a 180. Instead of evoking foggy nights in abandoned post-industrial cities, his new music is more like eating candy floss on a sunny day at an amusement park with your best friends.
Despite the woeful spirit that surrounds most of our staff at the moment, which goes without saying, the past month was actually one of the most enjoyable in terms of music releases for Carl and I. But both of us were not going to back out of our duty to report on some albums that are really worth your time. And besides, now, more than ever, do we depend on music as a refuge to lift our spirits when the near future is rife with a great deal of uncertainty and concern.
The opening few notes of ‘Lapis’, the first track of Travis Stewart’s first album in effectively three years as Machinedrum, sound a bit like the build up to a Years & Years single. Nothing wrong with that, of course, I like a bit of Ollie Alexander & co., but it seems a radical shift for Stewart, who made his name as the creator of brooding amalgamations of dubstep and Chicago house on albums like Room(s). But times have changed for Machinedrum, and in the years since 2013’s Vapor City, he’s fallen in love and moved from Berlin to sunny LA: Human Energy ultimately reflects this bright new life Stewart has built for himself.
Machine Drum 'Human Energy' (Ninja Tune)Travis Stewart always has a project on the go, whether solo as Machinedrum, with Braille’s Praveen Sharma as Sepalcure or alongside Jimmy Edgar as JETS. With Machinedrum, Stewart synthesises his love for the hyperactive rhythms of footwork, dancehall and the UK bass continuum. ‘Human Energy’, he says, is inspired by falling in love and discovering healing and meditation.